'Ammonite' Is a True Story, of Sorts

Esquire Editors
·7-min read
Photo credit: Ammonite
Photo credit: Ammonite

From Esquire

Warning: this article is one big spoiler for Ammonite

Five months after it was released in the US, Francis Lee’s Ammonite has finally landed upon our rocky shore. It’s been a long wait, and not one free of controversy; from the moment it was announced in 2019, many social media critics and historians took issue with the film's 'authenticity', for wholly different reasons. So is Ammonite a true story? And more importantly, does it really matter?

Watch Ammonite Here

The answer to the first question is yes and no, but mostly no. Mary Anning, played by Kate Winslet, was indeed a pioneering palaeontologist from the 1800s who was disrespected and taken advantage of by the patriarchal establishment of her time. It’s also true that Charlotte Murchison, played by Saoirse Ronan, visited and worked with her in Lyme Regis on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, alongside her geologist husband Roderick Murchison (James McArdle). But the lesbian love affair that forms between the two women in the film is (by all historical accounts) a fiction, inspired by the mystery around Anning's romantic life. She lived with her mother, never wed and died childless, while Murchison continued to travel and work with her husband on geological pursuits.

Some members of Anning’s family lineage took issue with what they saw as an ahistorical characterisation of their ancestor. “I believe if Mary Anning was gay she should be portrayed as gay and this should also be by a gay actress. But I do not believe there is any evidence to back up portraying her as a gay woman… I believe Mary Anning was abused because she was poor, uneducated and a woman. Is that not enough,” wrote Barbara Anning in an online forum, according to The Telegraph.

“Do the film-makers have to resort to using unconfirmed aspects to somebody’s sexuality to make an already remarkable story sensational? Imagine the shame and embarrassment this woman would be feeling right now to actually have her private sex life discussed and played out on screen. This adds nothing to her story.”

Photo credit: Ammonite
Photo credit: Ammonite

Others were more sanguine about the decision. “I think it might be to make her more attractive. The fact she was a loner, an independent woman, in today’s times that could mean something different,” Lorraine Anning told The Telegraph. “To be honest, it doesn’t matter; as long as it’s well presented and tastefully done and in the spirit of Mary Anning, then I think it’s brilliant.”

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Director Francis Lee, who had previously won plaudits for his debut film God's Own Country, responded to the criticism in a tweet thread in March 2019. “After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?

“Particularly a woman whose work and life were subjected to the worst aspects of patriarchy, class discrimination and gender imbalance… As a working-class, queer filmmaker, I continually explore the themes of class, gender, sexuality within my work, treating my truthful characters with utter respect and I hope giving them authentic respectful lives and relationships they deserve.”

Photo credit: Agatha A Nitecka
Photo credit: Agatha A Nitecka

He revisited the topic in a recent interview with Esquire (that’s us), saying: “To me, Mary felt like a figure from history who had been ignored, who had no voice and had been passed over […] And that was because she was working class and a woman.

“My reason for suggesting that Mary Anning had a relationship with a woman felt like it was coming from a place of integrity […] It felt like a way to elevate her and give her the respect she should have had at the time. Why would I be giving her a man to have a relationship with, when the patriarchy at that time had sidelined her and taken away her voice? I wanted her to be with someone who she could be equal to. So, it just felt like [the love affair] couldn’t be with a man. I felt it would be wrong.”

That wasn’t the only criticism he received, however. Many on social media took aim at the fact that a man (albeit a working class member of the LGBTQ+ community) was taking on a lesbian love story, accusing him of working from white male privilege. He was even erroneously referred to as a straight man. “I think it makes things very complicated now,” he told us in the same interview. “What does it mean? Does it mean a woman can’t make a film about a man? Does it mean a person of colour can’t make a film about white people, or a non-queer person can’t make a film about queer people or vice versa? That all starts to feel difficult for me, because I don’t know what we’re going to be left with. It’s really made me ask, ‘What can I make next? What am I allowed to have a voice in?’

All that being said, the film is faithful when it comes to other details. Anning was one of 10 children, only two of whom survived to adulthood. (Anning inherited her life’s passion from her cabinetmaker father, Richard, who collected and sold fossils to help pay off his family’s debts.) The ichthyosaur (“fish lizard”) that she excavated as a child was displayed at the National History Museum, and she did spend much of her time finding and selling fossils to tourists, who would often travel to meet her specifically (she is often claimed to be the inspiration for tongue-twister "She sells seashells on the seashore"). According to Time, The Geological Society has records of a glowing diary entry written by a tourist, Lady Harriet Silvester, who visited Anning in 1824. “The extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she has made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong,” she wrote. It's also true that she shared a friendship with her neighbour and fellow fossil collector Elizabeth Philpot, played by Fiona Shaw in the film.

Meanwhile, the enthusiasm that Anning inspired in Charlotte Murchison is reflected in the latter's legacy. It was Murchison's husband that won all the plaudits (he was the president of the Geological Society for many years), but many believed that Charlotte played a pivotal role in their success. “Who is aware that there would have never been a geologist Roderick Murchison without the encouragement from a woman?” Martina Kölbl-Ebert writes in a 1997 'Earth Sciences History' article, according to Time. “She not only introduced him into the world of minerals, rocks and fossils, but took an active part in the scientific pursuits which she had initiated, which leads us to conclude that her views are intimately connected with Roderick Murchison’s work.”

There may have been no forbidden romance, but there's no denying the huge impact that Anning left on Murchison, or the fact that she chose to live her life surrounded by brilliant, pioneering women. Countless others followed in her footsteps.

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